A large number of anti-Brexit Labour MPs addressed a packed committee room in parliament on Monday evening, at the latest event held by the Love Socialism Rebuild Britain Transform Europe group (until now called Love Socialism Hate Brexit).
As the first meeting held since Labour backed Remain against no deal or a Tory deal, it featured a number of shadow cabinet members – top Jeremy Corbyn ally Diane Abbott, plus Dawn Butler, Emily Thornberry, Jon Ashworth and Keir Starmer.
Supportive statements were sent by John McDonnell and Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Other frontbenchers in attendance included Luke Pollard, Chi Onwurah, Anneliese Dodds, Clive Lewis, Bill Esterson, Sandy Martin and Matt Rodda; backbenchers included Alex Sobel, Paul Sweeney, Kate Osamor, Kate Green, Rupa Huq and Janet Daby.
Richard Leonard‘s statement, read out by Glasgow North East’s Paul Sweeney, said no deal was “looming large” and Labour had to “act now and urgently”. He added that the SNP is taking the opportunity of Brexit to call for a second independence referendum, but: “Creating a new Scottish state will not resolve the great challenges we face. This is why Scottish Labour believes that we need to remain in and reform the UK and the EU too. We all back a public vote on any Brexit deal and in that vote we would campaign to remain in the EU.”
John McDonnell‘s statement was read out by shadow Treasury team member Anneliese Dodds. He warned that nobody should “underestimate the reckless, ruthless self-serving ambition of Johnson, who is willing to put our people at risk to secure the temporary keys of No10″. The Shadow Chancellor also said he was “tremendously pleased” by the new Brexit position; Labour must “learn the lessons of the last referendum campaign”; he favours “the use of citizens’ assemblies before any vote”; and the new Remain campaign must “inspire people with the principles of internationalism”.
Jon Ashworth delivered a speech focussing on the potential impact of Brexit on the NHS, which he said could be “sold off” and see “American companies getting hold of our data”. The Shadow Health Secretary told the meeting: “Brexit has the potential to rip our NHS apart and as socialists it is our duty to defend our best creation.”
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The next shadow cabinet member to speak, Dawn Butler, was fiery in her support for the Remain campaign. “If you don’t hate Brexit, there’s something wrong with you,” the equalities spokesperson said. She later added: “It doesn’t matter what Boris says, he is talking bullshit.” And the Brent MP concluded that, in terms of what they could do in parliament: “There are only two options on the table – revoke Article 50 or go for a general election.”
Emily Thornberry, who also spoke at a People’s Vote rally on Sunday, reaffirmed her support for campaigning “unequivocally” for a public vote and Remain. She went further than current party policy, which does not cover what Labour would do in a general election and only applies to Labour in opposition, saying: “No matter what deal is on the table, and which party has negotiated it, our position must be to remain in the EU and oppose any form of Brexit.” The Shadow Foreign Secretary mostly talked about Boris Johnson – “the worst, laziest, most incompetent minister I’ve ever had to shadow” and a “serious danger” like President Trump, she argued.
Keir Starmer started his speech with thanks for the audience of Remain-backing activists. “Thank you for the pressure that you’ve put on us and everyone else. It’s been really important to have that pressure… You’re gonna have to keep it up,” he began. The Shadow Brexit Secretary warned that Johnson as PM “changes everything” and declared: “It is going to get intense from Tuesday.” He also said the EU referendum result was “years in the coming” and the next Remain campaign should be “much more about values” such as internationalism and solidarity.
Diane Abbott, the final shadow cabinet member to speak, delivered a nuanced message. She struck a different tone to the previous speakers when she referred to the Eurosceptic views of Tony Benn and said there were “perfectly intellectual reasons” to support leaving the EU, though the official campaign in 2016 was “terrible” as it claimed “migrants were the problem”. She pointed out: “The last Labour government didn’t have an industrial strategy, so many places that voted to Leave were left behind.”
As one of the Labour leader’s closest allies, Abbott confirmed she had been privately arguing for Remain. “Jeremy came from the left politics of the ’90s, which championed member-led democracy,” she said. “How can you believe in that and not listen to what the majority of members are now telling you?” But once she had finished, Alex Sobel asserted: “We are now officially a Remain party”. Sitting beside him, LabourList heard Abbott quietly say to Keir Starmer: “I’m not sure I’d agree with that.”
In between shadow cabinet contributors, junior frontbenchers and backbenchers addressed the meeting. Luke Pollard joked that MPs were now defined by their Whatsapp groups and described the group chat of Love Socialism as “very active”. His Plymouth seat voted Leave, but the previous party policy on Brexit was “neither good enough to attract the Remain voters… nor was it good enough for some of our Leave areas”, the fisheries spokesman argued.
Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for industrial strategy, said she had spoken to Leave voters who now wanted to Remain, and also Remain voters who now want to Leave. “Our position has moved in the interests of the country. Now we have to move the country.” She described Jeremy Corbyn as a “real internationalist socialist” and said she had discussed EU reform with him.
Anneliese Dodds, a former MEP, delivered a barnstorming speech on transforming and rebuilding Britain and Europe. Addressing the newcomer speakers, Clive Lewis said: “We knew you were going to catch up with us.” Rupa Huq described the idea of socialism in one country as “complete bunkum” and compared Labour’s sequential Brexit policy to the Black Mirror interactive episode ‘Bandersnatch’, which has a choose-your-own-adventure element.